The Godfather (parts 1 and 2) may be the top pick for the epic crime genre, but Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America deserves a mention both for its detailed look at its characters and the enormous scope of the film, covering 48 years of the lives of a few characters. Written and directed by Italian director Sergio Leone (Once Upon a Time in the West, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly), who had originally been approached to direct The Godfather but turned it down and regretted it for the rest of his life, this was his attempt to recapture some of the greatness that he had passed up earlier in life. The Godfather was a thoughtful film about a crime family, but Once Upon a Time in America has a lot more heart and really shows us the deep connections that formed in the Jewish ghetto of New York City in 1920 and lasted nearly 50 years. This film is not perfect—some of the dialogue is clumsy, the time jumps can be confusing, and the characters are certainly not likable—but this film captures the humanity of getting into, and out of, a life a crime more than any other I’ve seen.
“Ms. Stoeger, my plastic surgeon doesn’t want me doing any activity where balls fly at my nose.”
There’s a sea of dumb teen movies. Many of these even portray characters that are supposed to be smart. We know this because other characters constantly refer to them as smart, even though their actions don’t really reflect this. For a long time, I assumed Clueless was one of these films. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I saw this film, at the insistence of my podcast co-host Maria, and I was pleasantly surprised. This is very nearly the exact opposite of the trope I just described. The characters are surprisingly smart, although other characters tease them for being dumb. Written and directed by Amy Heckerling (Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Look Who’s Talking) and starring Alicia Silverstone, Paul Rudd, and Brittany Murphy, this is a surprisingly sharp teen comedy based on Jane Austen’s Emma. The dialogue is witty, the characters are well-fleshed-out, and the film has some great things to say about women in society without forcing the statement to the detriment of the plot. This is undoubtedly one of the classic teen films of the 90s, and one of the smarter films in the genre, and it still deserves attention today.
I was in college when Donnie Darko came out. Just about everyone around my age had that one friend who would not shut up about this film, how it was deep and mysterious. I didn’t get around to watching this film until the end of 2016, 15 years after its release. I’ll admit, on my first viewing, I wasn’t that impressed. There seemed to be too many loose ends and unexplained mysteries for me to take it seriously. I’m revising my review after a second viewing, not because I’ve figured out the many mysteries here, but because I think I’ve figured out why they’re in there. Is this a great film? I won’t say it’s one of the best on my list, but it’s unique and thought-provoking, to say the least.
Written and directed by Richard Kelly (Southland Tales, The Box) and starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, and Maggie Gyllenhaal, this is an independent sci-fi film that takes some serious risks. Some of them pay off, and some of them don’t, but this is markedly different than most other films out there, sci-fi or otherwise. There’s also a lot of depth lurking underneath the surface of this film, although some of it is buried a little too deep to make sense of. Is it brilliant? Is it nonsense? I think that’s really open to interpretation. That said, I’ll give you my take on it.
“Nothing I have been told about these people is correct. They are not thieves or beggars. They are not the bogeymen they are made out to be. On the contrary, they are polite guests and I enjoy their humor.”
Dances with Wolves was a huge film in its time, although it’s not flawless. The drama at times borders on melodrama, and the length of the film can cause it to drag in some places. But despite its flaws, this is a film that just works, and it was a major milestone in the Western genre. It was also a major milestone in portrayals of Native Americans in film—a group that has historically had little voice on screen. The Sioux tribe made director and star Kevin Costner an honorary member for his respectful depiction of their culture. I myself am a member of the Tlingit tribe, so this movie is very dear to me as well. The film won seven Oscars, including best picture, best director, and best adapted screenplay, so it caused quite a stir in the film industry as well—which is especially impressive considering the hurdles it had to jump over to be made in the first place. Even with its flaws, this is an epic Western masterpiece that should be watched by everyone.
“If you get shown a problem, but have no idea how to control it, then you just decide to get used to the problem.”
Sorry to Bother You is a hell of a movie. Before watching it, I’d heard it described as Office Space for Millennials, but that’s only partly true. Much like Office Space, it goes beyond office humor and very succinctly details all of the generation’s frustrations with the workforce, and it’s very funny to watch; however, Sorry to Bother You goes beyond the office and also comments on race, politics, and capitalism. Office Space was an anthem for Generation X people who were entering the workforce (like myself), but Sorry to Bother You is one of the smartest and most daring satires I’ve ever seen on any topic. Written and directed by Boots Riley and starring Lakeith Stanfield and Tessa Thompson, this is sharp, funny, at times shocking, and perhaps above all else, thought-provoking, and that’s a tall order for any movie, let alone one that’s as entertaining as this one.
“Let’s face it—this is not the worst thing you’ve caught me doing.”
It’s hard to imagine this time, but superhero movies used to be, well, pretty terrible. DC Comics franchises had a surprise hit in 2005 with Batman Begins, but Marvel Comics franchises had been mediocre at best. We had the X-Men movies, and the Spider Man movies, and a few oddballs like 2003’s Hulk and Daredevil. Each of these had problems. Lower budgets meant special effects suffered in places where they really shouldn’t have suffered. Characters were often shallow, and the acting matched. The direction of the movies gave them this larger-than-life feeling that felt far removed from what we saw everyday. What we needed was a down-to-earth, relatable hero, played by a charming actor or actress, placed into extraordinary circumstances with a special effects budget to match. In 2008, Iron Man finally delivered.
Directed by Jon Favreau (Elf, The Jungle Book) and starring Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, and Jeff Bridges, this was a surprise hit for many reasons. Of course the track record for Marvel-franchise movies was bad, but director Jon Favreau hadn’t directed anything like Iron Man before; star Robert Downey Jr. had been in and out of rehab and wasn’t known as a reliable actor; and the character of Tony Stark was very different than the heroes we had seen in film thus far: arrogant and full of vices. But Iron Man worked better than I think any of us were expecting it to, introducing viewers to the now hugely successful Marvel Cinematic Universe, which pulls in hundreds of millions of dollars every year. Comic book movies had, up until this point, been mainly for die-hard comic book fans, but this film opened up the genre to general audiences and opened the door for some of the amazing movies we’re getting today.
“Kill white people and get paid for it? What’s not to like?”
Revenge stories can be gratifying to watch, but director Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Inglourious Basterds) frequently makes them even more so. Taking a page from his 2009 historical revenge tale, Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino turns his eyes to a dark time in American history: slavery in the American South. Starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, and Leonardo DiCaprio, this story pulls no punches in its portrayal of how brutal and dehumanizing slavery was, and its portrayal of an escaped slave taking righteous revenge on vicious slavers fits well with the stylized violence and witty dialogue Tarantino is known for. The raw brutality, though necessary to tell this story of slavery, can be hard to watch, but the pay-off at the end is completely worth it.
“Look! We’ve figured it seventeen different ways, and every time we figured it, it was no good, because no matter how we figured it, somebody don’t like the way we figured it! So now, there’s only one way to figure it. And that is, every man—including the old bag—for himself!”
It’s not often that the word “epic” is attached to the word “comedy.” Epics are usually found amongst crime dramas or historical or fantasy pieces and are more serious affairs. But 1963’s It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World took that epic formula and effectively brought it to comedy. This was directed by Stanley Kramer (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner) and stars virtually every name in comedy in the 60s, including older names like Buster Keaton and the Three Stooges (with many only appearing in cameos). And with a runtime of over three hours, this is the Lord of the Rings of comedy. It spawned a number of ripoff epic race comedies in the 60s, though none were as memorable—or as epic—as the original. Is it funny? I’ll admit, there are times when this film feels tedious; its saving grace is that when it works, it really works. This is a fun watch with some very memorable characters and scenes, which is no small feat considering the scope of the film.
“What was I supposed to do—call him for cheating better than me, in front of the others?”
I love a good con. Most modern con movies are so obsessed with being intricate and overly complicated that they lose their touch with reality, with mythical characters with superhuman abilities, unrealistic technological devices that are closer to magic than reality, and eleven, twelve, or sometimes thirteen people essential to the plan. In 1973, The Sting brought the con back to its early cinema roots in the 1930s, and it’s everything I wanted to see in a con movie: cleverness, real danger, and humor. Directed by George Roy Hill (Slap Shot, Slaughterhouse Five) and starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford—reuniting the three of them for the first time since the hit comedy-Western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in 1969—this movie was a huge hit in its time, winning the Oscar for best picture as well as several others for cast and crew, and it holds up very well today. It’s intriguing, it’s well-constructed, and it’s fun—what more could you ask for in a con movie?
“SANTA! OH MY GOD! SANTA’S COMING! I KNOW HIM! I KNOW HIM!”
Will Ferrell has always been really hit-or-miss for me; so have Christmas movies. Thankfully, Elf, a 2003 Christmas movie starring Will Ferrell, is a huge hit. Directed by Jon Favreau (About a Boy, Iron Man) and starring Will Ferrell, Zooey Deschanel, and James Caan, this Christmas film is just the right amount of goofiness and sentiment to make it special without making it so sugary sweet that I need to watch Fight Club afterwards. I debated whether it belongs on my list of classic and essential films, but after watching it again this holiday season, I have to admit: this is a great film that’s fun to watch and will be around for decades, much like A Christmas Story. Even after watching this virtually every Christmas for the last ten years or so, it’s still a joy to watch. It’s a fun holiday film that can make any dreary December a little more merry.